Soaring meat prices a tough sell for barbecue pitmasters
Jeremy Harlan/CNN

Soaring meat prices a tough sell for barbecue pitmasters

For about twenty minutes, Alex Barbosa had his full menu on display — written in permanent marker on peach-colored butcher paper — before he had to start taking parts of it down.

“Sorry, ma’am. We’re already out of the burnt ends,” Barbosa, owner of the mobile barbecue trailer Barbosa’s Barbeque, tells the patron standing out front of his trailer-turned-small business. “They were really popular today and we had a big order.”

Selling out of meat is nothing new for the native-Texan who moved to Denver in 2019 from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In the nineteen months he’s served smoked meats around town, Barbosa has quickly drawn rave reviews from those craving craft barbecue. They routinely line up to devour his signature beef brisket, homemade sausages, and moist smoked turkey breast that he may, or may not, dip in a little melted butter before serving.

“Poultry and butter go great together,” Barbosa quips.

“We were losing money every day we were slicing brisket.”

Moments of levity have been rarer for Barbosa and other pitmasters across the country this year. They’ve seen the cost of their menu staples: beef, pork and poultry steadily increase since the pandemic’s start last year. And while most of the food industry has experienced the pain, pitmasters feel the price increases are the most searing for barbecue restaurant owners.

“[Meat] is our main ingredient,” says Rodney Scott, owner of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. “All these protein prices have gone up and it’s a challenge for all of us in this business.”

The cost of meats increased 12.6% between September 2020 and September 2021, according to unadjusted data from the Consumer Price Index. The cost of pork rose 12.7% in the same period. Poultry prices rose 6.1%, while overall beef prices climbed the most at 17.6%. Beef roasts, the category brisket falls in, increased 20.8% the past 12 months.

“When we started the business in Denver [in March 2020], USDA prime brisket we were getting it for about $3.19 to $3.29 a pound,” explains Barbosa. “Now we’re looking at about $5.59 a pound.”

At that cost, Barbosa took his beloved brisket off the menu.

“We could have raised our prices to $35-$40 a pound to keep the margins where they needed to be to keep the business running. But, you know, at the end of the day I don’t want to charge anyone that much.”

Across town, Chris Nicki was faced with the same dilemma.

“It’s kind of hard to not have brisket as a Texas-barbecue restaurant,” says Nicki, who opened Hank’s Texas Barbecue in February 2019. “We were stuck. I couldn’t raise prices any more than I had. But we were losing money every day we were slicing brisket.”

Two and half years after he opened Hank’s, Nicki paid his staff their final wages and permanently closed his barbecue restaurant this August. The same butcher paper he used to wrap moist brisket now covers the restaurant’s windows.

“The prices were astronomical. And on top of that, there were weeks where we couldn’t get things,” explains Nicki. “There were times I couldn’t get ribs and pork. People would come in and they wouldn’t understand that because they could see them at the grocery store.

“And I can go buy it at the grocery store for that price, but we’re not going to hit our margin if we do that.”

Surging Costs, Shrinking Supply

Price increases and decreased meat availability are directly linked to the supply chain’s processing level.

According to the North American Meat Institute, a trade association representing meat processors, companies are suffering from a common problem during the pandemic: lack of workers.

“There is a critical labor shortage which slows down production, making goods scarce,” Sarah Little, NAMI’s spokesperson, told CNN in an email. “Retailers and Food Service then must compete for a limited amount of meat to ensure a steady supply for consumers. This competition has driven up the price for consumers.”

But the industry has drawn sharp criticism the past year, including from the White House, about its practices and the continuing rise of meat prices.

“If you look at that market, the thing that is striking is — across beef, poultry, and pork — anywhere from 55 to 85 percent of the market is controlled by the top four producers in those industries,” National Economic Council Director, Brian Deese, told reporters during a White House briefing on September 8.

“When you see that level of consolidation and the increase in prices, it raises a concern about pandemic profiteering.”

Citing a US Department of Agriculture report, Deese said the top four meat processing companies in the US raked in record or near-record profits in the first half of 2021.

“The real concern we have is that consumers are facing higher prices, and the growers are not getting paid higher,” said Deese.

In a move to help quell rising meats costs, the White House announced plans to enforce antitrust laws, investigate possible price-fixing among major meat processors, and create more industry competition.

In response to Deese’s claims of pandemic profiteering, a spokesperson for Tyson Foods, Inc., one of the top four US meat processing companies, pointed CNN to July testimony from Shane Miller, the group president for the company’s beef and pork unit, in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary committee.

“Consumer demand for finished beef outpaced our ability to supply it, and there were more live cattle than the market could harvest resulting in lower live prices,” Miller told senators. “And on the consumer end, limited ability to supply finished product to meet strong demand drove prices higher.”

JBS Foods, National Beef and Cargill, Inc. did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on this story.

Regardless of what is said and done in Washington, DC, pitmasters like Barbosa, Scott and Nicki just want to see prices stop increasing before more barbecue restaurants are forced to close for good.

Barbosa has been able to stay in business catering events and serving barbecue at music festivals. Scott, a recent inductee into the Barbecue Hall of Fame, is hoping to expand his operation with a fourth location in the coming months.

“Coming from a ‘mom-and-pop’ operation, I know,” says Scott. “I feel the pain about wondering about higher prices and making it to the next day.

“Help us out and create a balance where we can all stay in business and continue to be an addition to the economy.”

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